Activist complains that city theater fails wheelchair-accessibility test

Failure to meet state, federal standards could mean loss of public funds

March 07, 2000|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Marilynn J. Phillips has never been to Theatre Project to see a performance, but she'd love a chance to go -- if she could access the restroom.

Phillips, a former Morgan State University English professor, filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations after she was told that the restrooms at Theatre Project in the first block of W. Preston St. did not have "a raised toilet" for wheelchair accessibility. She questions whether the restrooms meet minimum accessibility standards.

She said the problem is prevalent in Baltimore and she wants the city and state to enforce federal and Maryland laws that require the government to stop funding organizations that receive taxpayer dollars if the organizations fail to provide adequate accessibility.

"People don't really understand what accessibility means," said Phillips, 56 and a Hampstead resident who has been disabled since she contracted polio at age 2 and has used a wheelchair for about 13 years. "You don't just say, `You can't' " use the bathroom.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he is sensitive to Phillips' concern: "I will look into it, and I will do everything I can to make restrooms more accessible."

Bobby Mrozek, executive director of Theatre Project, said the 125-year-old theater provides wheelchair access and the city's housing department is scheduled to inspect the restrooms today to ensure they meet government standards.

"It's a real important issue," Mrozek said. "What I want to find out from the guy I'm meeting with [today] is what the standards are. I'm not an expert on it."

Frustration over wheelchair access to Baltimore's aging public and private buildings has grown. Baltimore's Circuit Court settled a lawsuit in January over wheelchair access to the courthouse complex on Calvert Street.

Under the settlement, a ramp will be placed at the post office entrance for access to Courthouse East. For Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, a ramp will be constructed on the Fayette Street side.

Phillips said she has fought for a decade to ensure buildings in the city are accessible to the disabled.

She called the Theatre Project after seeing a newspaper advertisement about a performance of "Preaching to the Perverted." She became concerned that the theater's restrooms were not wheelchair accessible when told Feb. 25 that the restrooms did not have a raised toilet.

On Feb. 27, she filed her complaint, and is awaiting a response from city and state officials. She said she wants people to understand the importance of access for the disabled.

"I'm willing to draw stick figures for" the mayor, Phillips said, referring to O'Malley's recent use of drawings to explain his plan for a District Court judge in the city jail. "I'll have someone in a wheelchair. I'll have a picture of someone in a wheelchair with a toilet. And I'll have a third picture with someone in a wheelchair and a puddle on the floor."

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